What It Means To Be A Woman-Owned Marketing Agency

Feb 24, 2023

Early in Stout Heart’s existence, we reached a point where it was clear we were going to outgrow our very first office. It had served us well but we needed room for more team members, a real conference room, and on top of that, I had my first child in our first year and pumping in the parking garage three times a day to get privacy had hammered home the need for space and privacy despite having a very tight knit team. I let my landlord know that we were thinking of moving on and he insisted that I look at a smaller office down the hallway from ours to use as “add-on space.” Though I appreciated the idea, after seeing the space, I let him know respectfully that, logistically, it didn’t make sense for us. 

Him: “Well, how much do you really want to grow your business?”

Me: …

Him: “My wife is home with my kid. Don’t you want to be home with your kid?”

Me: …..

It is my lot in life to be stunned into silence when exchanges like this happen. It was 2016, not 1915 or even 1985. I could not believe the implication of my landlord’s remarks and, of course, I thought of fifty perfect comebacks twenty minutes later when the shock had worn off and anger had taken its place.

Being a business owner is hard. HARD. If you ever decide you want to try your hand at it, people will warn you of this but it’s something that you won’t fully comprehend until you’re in it. There’s no college degree, workshop, or training that can properly prepare you for what’s to come and, boy, do those challenges keep coming. I did not expect being a female business owner to be any more difficult, but I should have known better.

Many know that my husband and I found out we were pregnant with our first child three months after I had started Stout Heart. Not exactly how I had planned things to go (and if you know me, you know I like to have a plan) but we ran with it. My son arrived in our lives as I was struggling with a one-year-old business and a whole lot of fear and doubt. I felt like I had two babies, not one, demanding my time and energy and I never felt that I was able to give 100% to either.

As many new moms can relate to, leaving him at home every day was a struggle and I constantly asked myself if I was doing the right thing for him or if I should ditch my business and find a job where I could leave work at work. If you own your business this is (most days) not an option.

One morning I came downstairs to a whole lot of excitement and my husband telling me that our son had just said his first sentence.

“Say it! Say it!” he urged my son.

And my son replied… “Mama go to work.”

I broke down and bawled. I was devastated that this was the first sentence that my sweet boy had strung together and distraught that the amount of work I was having to put in to keep this business going had done this. I cried all the way to work.

Credit goes to my husband, who was home with my son that day (and literally never complains when it has to be him and not me home with our kids when they’re sick or it’s snowy). By the time I got home that night, they had worked on a new, second sentence, one that I am very proud of:

“Mama run a business.”

Every person is different. Every child is different. Every business is different. But if you are a parent, particularly a mother, and entrepreneur and you are questioning whether you’re doing the right thing, once in a while, remind yourself of the example you are setting for your children. They might be growing up alongside your business but you should be proud of the fact that they get to see their Mama run a business.

The advertising industry is not kind to women. It’s trying harder these days but if you’ve seen an episode of Mad Men you know its roots. And while I knew that I would need to keep my wits about me when I was fresh out of college in 2006 and rolling into my first real agency job in San Francisco, I would never have predicted that almost twenty years later I’d have a laundry list of experiences ranging from slightly odd to egregious that make quite a case for the continued existence of sexism in the agency world. Progress is progress but there’s still quite a way to go.

In our world, you see a lot of women in account service (makes sense—we’re great communicators), fewer in design, and the numbers start to fall off after that (and, please, find me some great female developers!). The higher up the ladder you get, the more obvious the lack of female leadership is. And I get it. I once had a boss tell me that in the advertising agency world there are visitors and there are lifers. The visitors come for a time, get the experience and teachings, and move on. Maybe they go client-side to get a slower pace. Maybe they move on entirely. As for us lifers, we get addicted to the craziness. In an agency, no day is the same. You are always under pressure, on a timeline, hassled for more, more, more. Some might say we secretly love the drama. But this life is not conducive to work/life balance. And if you don’t have work/life balance, Lord help you when you become a mother. It’s no wonder that women begin to disappear from agencies mid-career.

According to the 4A’s, there are 14,000 advertising agencies in North America. How many of those are owned by women? Less than 1%. 

Let me say that again: Less than 1%. 

I find that number appalling but having lived this life for eight years, I get it. 

I might have been a newbie to business ownership when I started Stout Heart but I was not new to the fact that being a woman and a parent in the advertising and marketing industry is tough. And I give myself credit for having the foresight to craft my own business accordingly. I knew that I wanted my agency to be a friendly place for all but, in particular (partly selfishly because I knew I would be governed by the rules I created), a place where women could thrive.

Beyond Stout Heart’s general golden rule, “Don’t be a jerk”, we have policies in place that safeguard our staff from the agency world’s tendency to violate all boundaries you try to establish to defend your personal life (unlimited vacation, 36 weeks of leave for new parents regardless of gender, breastfeeding parents’ policy, etc). Some are obvious needs, others less so. For example, our inclement weather policy stipulates that if the public schools in town are closed, we work from home. If you are a parent, however, it specifically states that we understand that you need to be home with your children and that no one is going to deny you the joy that snow day memories will bring your kids.

Beyond all of those housekeeping items, for me, the root of our success as a female-friendly work environment is a culture of respect. Regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference, people are people. We don’t shed those identities when we walk into our place of work. I want to be seen and respected as a woman in my industry. I have fought for that. I would expect no less of any other person.

I have been very fortunate in my lifetime to have had a preponderance of strong female mentors in my industry. I can only hope to pay that forward. In my years as a business owner, I have come to lean on other female agency owners as my inner circle. But I also find great community with other female business owners. It feels a bit like we’re all in it together and though our experiences may vary, the general consensus is that if we can help each other succeed, we will do it. 

Stout Heart just submitted its application to become a certified woman-owned business this week. While I found the process of confirming my identity as a woman and the owner of my business laughable and paperwork-heavy, hitting “submit” was a bit of a moment for me. We are a woman-owned business, we are a woman-led business, but we are also a woman-empowering business, in my opinion. I hope that every day there are more and more. I hope that my daughter won’t have to think twice about whether the industry she works in someday will be friendly to her. I hope no child will. But that’s up to us and we have some homework to do.